JEALOUSY BY ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET

The novel as virtual reality.

The term virtual reality conjures up images of people strapping on funny headsets and being exposed to simulated environments; its goal is to make the participant feel as though he or she has stepped into another world, one that feels real or is at least able to recreate some of the conditions of a real experience. This is very much what reading Jealousy is like. Robbe-Grillet’s novel, if one is in the right frame of mind, recreates many of the attendant emotions relative to jealousy.

Of course, just like with virtual reality one must approach Jealousy with an absence of cynicism, but if you do this is an almost mind-warping experience. Experience is the correct word, because this is not engaging as a story; the most one needs to know about the plot is summed up in the title. A jealous husband suspects his wife of infidelity. That is all. But even that, really, is guess work.

What is striking about Robbe-Grillet’s work is the construction of the story. It is almost entirely written as a stream of banal descriptive statements, similar to a series of stage directions, such as “A… is writing, sitting at the table near the first window.” Strangely, for a novel named after an emotion there is no explicit emotional content. We are not told how the husband is feeling; we infer his psychological state from his behaviour, we infer his jealousy from his preoccupations. Apparently innocuous scenes are repeated numerous times, giving one the impression that the husband is continuously reliving, re-imagining, these moments.

Even more remarkable is that the character of the husband is only apparent logically, not literally. What I mean by this is that he never reveals himself, is never active in any of the narrated events, we simply assume his presence because, for example, there are three places set at dinner (one for the wife, one for the chief suspect Franck, and one for an uninvolved but clearly present other). However, the effect is that one almost feels as though you are the other; that you are the cuckolded husband, that it is you who are watching, stalking, obsessing over this woman and her potential affair. One starts to feel the paranoia as one observes A… reading a letter, one imbues her every action with significance, regards all of her behaviour with suspicion.

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